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August 28, 2011

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Brewing a taste of home

WHEN a friend gave Joey Redner a taste of a beer that had been aged with Spanish cedar - the wood used to wrap and box cigars - he knew it was an idea worth stealing.

The aroma and flavor instantly reminded the then avid home brewer of Ybor City, an historic neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, his hometown. It also reminded him of the hand-rolled cigars Tampa is famous for. And he knew that if he ever owned a brewery, his beer needed to evoke the same memories.

"It just blew me away because when I smelled it, it was like waking down 7th Avenue in Ybor City, walking past a cigar shop," said Redner, who now owns Cigar City Brewing. "It was a win/win. It was good and it really pinpointed it on the map as coming from my city."

Plenty of brewers name their beers for the regions where they are made. But Cigar City takes it further, using ingredients such as Spanish cedar, guava, Cuban espresso and citrus woods to craft beers that also taste of Tampa's heritage.

Doing so also has helped prop up the craft beer industry in a state once mocked for its offerings. Cigar City has become the most visible brewer in a suddenly hot Florida beer industry.

"Cigar City led the way and said, 'We're going to make big beer, we're going to make hoppy beers, we're going to have sour beers and funky oak-aged spiced beers' and the response has been amazing for them," said Ben Davis, the owner and brewer at Jacksonville's Intuition Ale Works, which opened last fall. "They're the best brewery in the state of Florida. They're definitely bringing credibility to our entire state."

For years, Florida was a joke among craft beer lovers. "The wasteland" is what Davis said it often was called. For perspective, Portland, Oregon, had about as many breweries in its city limits as Florida had in the entire state.

Now Florida craft brewing is seeing a surge. There are only three Florida craft brewers who were distributing beer offsite before 2007 - Dunedin Brewery, Orlando Brewing and Florida Beer, a Melbourne company that bought beer brands that were previously brewed in Key West, Miami and Tampa.

Then Saint Somewhere Brewing Company opened in Tarpon Springs in 2007 and began selling Belgian-style ales. The next year Bold City began brewing in Jacksonville. Then Cigar City launched in 2009. Since then, at least seven breweries have opened around the state, with several more preparing to open.

Redner became a fan of craft beer during a 1994 trip to Portland.

"I spent the rest of my time in Florida trying to find those beers and failing," Redner said. "And then you start getting into home brewing because you think, 'Oh well, I'll just make it myself.'"

He also kept an eye on the market and when he felt interest was growing in Florida for craft beer, he hired brewer Wayne Wambles, who shared his interest in creative recipes.

Tampa's nickname is "The Big Guava," so Redner made a Belgian-style saison using guava. Cuban heritage - and Cuban coffee - also is important to the city, so Redner made an ale that included Cuban roasted espresso. He and Wambles also took one of their ale recipes and brewed three different batches with three different kinds of mushrooms, achieving an added earthiness to beer. They've used peaches, jalapenos, cocoa and pumpkins in their beers. And one of the more popular styles is an oatmeal raisin cookie ale that tastes like a liquid cookie.

He and Wambles now are working on a three-beer series taking a high gravity Belgian-style ale that already has notes of sweet orange peel, coriander and ginger and aging different batches with Spanish cedar, lemon tree wood and grapefruit tree wood.

"The overall idea is for the consumer to drink all three beers side by side and since they're all the same base beer it allows them to understand what each wood does to the beer," said Wambles.

Distribution quickly spread statewide, as well as to Alabama, New York City and Philadelphia.

Many of the guests who come into Cigar City's tap room end up buying bottles or quart- and gallon-sized growlers to bring home to states where the beer isn't available. People like Keith Dion, 37, of Savannah, who calls Cigar City "the beer mecca of the South."

"They're one of my favorite breweries. They are very creative with their ingredients and push envelopes and take chances, which not a lot of breweries do," said Dion.


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